n Vietnamese culture, drinking and eating possess a language and syntax of their own. Vietnamese people do not just drink and eat, they nhậu. A literal translation (drinking) does a disservice to the word. To nhậu is to drink and to eat socially (at a restaurant, a party, a wedding, a death anniversary), to release oneself of daily burdens through communal imbibing, and to revel in the quaintness of life. Typically seen and depicted as a working man’s activity, the art of nhậu transcends space, time, gender, and sexuality.
Growing up, I recall countless gatherings at my family home where my father and uncles would throw back bottle after bottle of Heineken with the occasional shot of Hennessy all accompanied with plates of nhậu dishes — yes, there are nhậu-specific dishes in Vietnamese cuisine — like baby clams with crispy rice crackers, grilled dried squid dipped in hot sauce, butter-grilled quails, chicken and banana blossom salad, rare beef marinated in lime juice, or the occasional hot pot extravaganza. The list goes on.
As a young boy, I always had a seat at the table and discovered the more unrecognized delicacies of my heritage. Women in my family and extended community participated as well. And, for as long as I can remember, everyone always ate and drank together; everyone had a seat at the table despite their individual differences.
My parents fled Vietnam in the aftermath of the American war to the very country responsible for their homeland’s destruction, knowingly leaving behind their families, communities, and traditions. When they met Vietnamese people in America, they were reminded that they weren’t alone — that they had kin — so I guess the last thing they cared about at get-togethers was traditional gender roles. They had access to a new vocabulary, new ways of being, and new opportunities. They had agency to uphold traditions or change them as needed. My mother and father have sacrificed immensely to be who they are and to allow me to be as I am. For that, I am grateful.
Growing up queer and Vietnamese in America, though, I often felt shame for my sexuality or my ethnicity, or sometimes both. I recall withholding my last name from kids in elementary school to hide my Vietnamese heritage, yelling at my grandmothers for picking me up from school wearing conical hats, or even feeling disgusted at the fact that I was gay and Asian to begin with. These feelings were only exacerbated through bullying, constant tension with my parents, and socialization to make me believe I was always meant to be the other.
What I never felt shame for, though, was loving Vietnamese food. Vietnamese food was where I found solace and learned to love myself. When I was questioning my own worth or struggling with growing up gay and Asian in white, straight America, I remembered where and what I came from: a lineage of resilience, inherent queerness, and unwavering care. These qualities often find themselves in Vietnamese dishes, themselves products of colonization, subsistence existence, ecological diversity, and years of modification. Despite my self-hatred back then, I never rejected the culinary innovations of my heritage. Even on my worst days then and now, I find peace in eating Vietnamese food: from bún bò Huế, to canh chua, to caramelized braised pork belly — because no one can cry when there’s pork belly. Also, how could I possibly feel shame knowing my ancestors created some of the most sought-after, delicious dishes in the world?
In the context of nhậu, I continue to honor the traditions, both old and new, of my parents at my own community gatherings. We, the next generation, gather to eat, to drink, to unpack our shared traumas and histories, and to bask in our collective love for our ancestors and heritage. In Vietnamese food, I find home; in Vietnamese community, I find love. At the nhậu table, every person has the opportunity to hold and be held. We bear witness to one another without fear of judgment or alienation. When we nhậu, we do so with the knowledge that there is no need for code-switching, explanations of cultural cues, or expected performances of identity. We drink and eat in safety, in kinship, and in liberation.
Through seeing nhậu as a child and participating in it fully as an adult, I have learned to love the pieces of my parents in me more every day. I have learned to love my queerness and my Vietnamese identity more every day. Neither just one nor the other, I find and ground myself through my relationship to Vietnamese food culture, which is a defining pillar of my life as a gay Vietnamese person. Through nhậu, I find myself, I find history, I find community, and I find love in ways I could never have imagined.